Before she got sick, Keira McGrenehan didn't know much about college rowing.
“Rowing is not really for my age group,” says Keira, 10, a fifth grader at MaST Community Charter School.
It is now. And with the help of Penn’s women’s rowing team, the sport is bringing her joy and relief as she manages an illness that would knock many grown-ups to their knees.
Keira’s journey to the Ivy League boathouse began in early 2017 when she was felled by terrible stomach pain and irregular, bloody bowel movements. Rounds of testing led to a diagnosis of ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease that causes long-lasting inflammation and ulcers in the digestive tract.
The disease can be hereditary and, indeed, there have been some related health issues in the McGrenehan family. Still, Keira’s diagnosis was a shock. Of the 900,000-plus Americans diagnosed annually with the disease, most are in their mid-30s.
Keira required months of treatment to stabilize her health and was even hospitalized for eight frightening days at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia when her blood counts crashed, leading to dehydration.
While Keira has been able to maintain her grades at school, nausea has sometimes sidelined her from swimming and playing basketball (she competes for Our Lady of Calvary School’s CYO team). And she can be nervous in group settings, where her fatigue, abdominal pain, and frequent bathroom visits make her self-conscious.
It’s hard to see the emotional toll that illness has taken on their daughter, say Mike and Jamie McGrenehan (who are also parents to Sean, 15, and Colin, 12; the family lives in Northeast Philly’s Millbrook section).
“She’s young and scared, with all of the hospital stays and the blood transfusions,” says Mike. “It’s not easy.”
Keira’s anxiety can sometimes be “through the roof,” admits Jamie. “She doesn’t like going to sleep because she thinks she won’t wake up.”
As for Keira, “I get these feelings in my stomach," she says, when she thinks about going to CHOP for her monthly infusion of medication and visits with specialists. “It’s like butterflies.”
Where Keira has found hope and happy distraction from worry is among the student athletes of the Penn women’s rowing team, whose members have “adopted” her through a national program called Team IMPACT, which connects kids with serious and chronic illnesses to college athletic teams.
Keira and her parents heard about Team IMPACT through CHOP’s ChildLife specialists, who explained the nonprofit’s goal: to create bonds of friendship in a team setting in which “kids and athletes accept, motivate and inspire one another, changing the game for everyone involved.”
Plus, it’s fun.
For a few blissful hours every Friday afternoon, Keira joins the women in the school’s rowing center, working out on the ergometers and exercise bikes or serving as coxswain for some drills. In November, the team even held a “signing ceremony” to officially place Keira on their roster.
Both Keira and the Penn rowers have taken to the experience like oars to water.
“I love hanging out with the girls and learning to row!” says Keira, who knows she can depend on her older teammates for support and encouragement. “A lot of kids don’t get to do this.”
“We’ve been so excited to have her with us, so we can know her and understand her difficulties and victories,” says Penn junior Romy Simpson, one of the team’s captains.
Keira’s parents say their daughter’s spirits have lifted dramatically since joining the team.
“The rowers help her feel better physically and be more at ease when it comes to meeting new people and trying new things,” says Jamie. “They’re teaching her the benefits of a strong work ethic and a variety of new exercises.”
This is exactly why Penn’s rowing team wanted Keira to be part of their community, says head coach Wesley Ng. It offered a child in tough circumstances a chance to experience being in an environment where the focus is on learning to conquer goals, despite difficulties and setbacks.
“Our team demands humility, courage, and character,” says Ng. “Even though we may experience failure, we learn and respond in the right ways.”
Jamie is deeply grateful to the team for showing Keira the power of hope and persistence.
“They’ve shown her that there are other things out there that she can still be great at, despite the challenges she faces,” she says.
For Keira, Team IMPACT has expanded her sense of possibility about life in her not-too-distant future.
“Maybe one day,” she says, "I’ll go to Penn — and I’ll get to row.”